The American and his girlfriend Jig have come to a train station in Spain near the Ebro River (rivers often run through Hemingway's stories). At first, they seem like a happy-go-lucky couple who are just enjoying a vacation. In the first part of the story, the reader understands that the man is in full control of the situation. He speaks Spanish, the language of the country where they are traveling, while the woman does not. He is seemingly an expert on the drinks they order. He is in charge of the luggage they are carrying, and presumably the itinerary of their travels. She appears passive and not really able to make up her own mind. At first, she says the hills look like white elephants (a veiled reference to the baby she is carrying), but later retracts that statement when it doesn't seem to suit the American.
All the while, the American is attempting to convince her to have an abortion. In this matter he also takes on the role of the expert in women's reproductive issues. He tells her, "I know you wouldn't mind it Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in." He seems troubled that a baby would disrupt their aimless lifestyle ("That's all we do, isn't it—look at things and try new drinks?"). The girl, however, is bothered by the whole concept. While she seems to love the American, she is obviously hesitant to abort the baby. She also suggests that the abortion will end their happiness ("And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.").
In the end, Hemingway seemingly leaves it up to the reader as to which decision the couple made. Most critics have concluded that since the man has been in control during the relationship, Jig probably acquiesced. It does seem, however, that the relationship may be over as Hemingway pictures the man drinking at the bar while the woman is still at the table in the last lines of the story.